AOL’s hyperlocal Patch sites are sweatshops, editor claims

There are a couple of pieces around today on AOL’s ambitious hyperlocal plans that highlight how its growth is being fuelled by journalists working long hours for low pay, according to an email from an insider.

AOL has ambitious plans to expand its hyperlocal network of websites, which already number 90.

According to a piece on the Boston Globe’s website AOL will spend $50m to expand Patch.com nationally in the US by the end of the year.

In some of those markets it is expanding in its plans are logic defying as it goes up against multiple competitors.

In Massachusetts, for instance, home of the Boston Globe, it faces both Boston.com growing network of local sites (Your Town) and local newspaper group GateHouse Media New England and its Wicked Local network of sites. In that market Patch has 13 sites against the Globe’s 31.

As well as AOL , The New York Times Company-owned Globe plans expansion as does GateHouse. Those two have the advantage of being part of established newspaper groups. AOL does not.

To succeed in hyperlocal where the competition is fierce it appears, according to an email from a Patch local editor sent to the Media Nation blog, that AOL is demanding a lot from its editors who are it is claimed working 70-hour weeks for as little as $40,000 (£25k).

The editor who emailed said that working conditions for local editors at Patch raise the question as to whether AOL’s hyperlocal model is sustainable.

“Basically, the job is 24/7 with so far little support in getting any kind of time off — nights, weekends, vacation days guaranteed under our AOL contract. (Some regional editors do try to help; others don’t.) This time-off issue has become a major concern among local editors. You might hear about the 70-hour work weeks. Yes, 70 hours and more. It’s a start-up and all that, and I knew it would be hard work going in. But what is becoming distressing is this sense that I can’t get a break. I’ve worked in journalism for more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter, online editor, magazine editor, and I’ve never worked so much in my life.”

AOL’s hyperlocal expansion is a major tenet of the plans of Tim Armstrong, AOL chairman and chief executive, to recast the one time ISP business as a content business.

His plans are aggressive and ambitious as he organises an online land grab fuelled by Patch, AOL’s network of blogs, such as Politicsdaily.com and gossip site TMZ, and its acquisition of content Seed.com.

It is a risky plan. Look only to the experiences elsewhere in the New York Times Company. Last month The New York Times pulled the plug on its hyperlocal project The Local as despite – an admission that it could not make hyperlocal pay. Add to that the failure of The Washington Post, it closed its hyperlocal operation (LoudounExtra.com) last year.

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